/ 4 May 2010

Cape Town on alert for baboon-jackers

Fred, a well-built house burglar and mugger, ambles down the row of parked cars at a scenic Cape Town look-out before finding an unlocked door.

Fred, a well-built seasoned house burglar and mugger, ambles down the row of parked cars at a scenic Cape Town look-out before finding an unlocked door and slipping onto the back seat.

A startled tourist leaps out. But Fred, a brazen alpha male baboon, slouches past a group of delighted onlookers with empty-handed indifference after an unsuccessful food rummage.

Getting baboon-jacked is a daily routine for drivers to Cape Point, Africa’s southernmost tip, with experts warning of increased face-offs as Soccer World Cup fans descend on South Africa next month.

“Every day, it happens,” said Mark Duffell, leader of a team that tracks Fred’s 26 member troop as they forage between Cape Point and the outskirts of the picturesque Simon’s Town naval base and penguin colony.

“He’ll hit four or five cars in like five minutes. Fred’s
operation is to open car doors. He leaves normally with a handbag. Until he’s satisfied he’s got all the food, don’t try get the bag back.”

More than R5-million will have been spent on managing Cape Town metro’s protected chacma
baboon troops in the year leading up to the city’s World Cup semifinal on July 6.

A machismo-fuelled football fan taking on Fred is baboon expert Justin O’Riain’s worst fear. He recently saw the alpha male climb into a car with five adult males and leap onto a female tourist’s

“Their behaviour is outrageous. I don’t think he’s out to kill anyone. But if we leave it as is now, there will be people injured and traumatised during the World Cup,” said the Baboon Research Unit head at the University of Cape Town.

With encroaching urbanisation, under-siege Cape Town residents in baboon areas have long battled raids and even the accidental pushing of an elderly man to his death.

For the apes, it’s simple logic: half a loaf of raided brown bread is nutritionally equal to a full day’s foraging, leaving more time for far-favoured socialising and mating.

“They’re extremely intelligent,” said Linden Rhoda of the Nature Conservation Corporation which has managed the city’s troops since last August with a team of 60 monitors.

Natural fear fades
The encounters can be violent — Fred has bitten at least three tourists.

“Baboons must learn again that people are not friends. They’re too used to people,” said Rhoda.

“That natural fear that baboons had is gone and that’s part of the reason why we are having such big problems on the peninsula.”

Shouts and whistles are used, but in tougher baboonhoods like Simon’s Town, whips are cracked and crackers set off to move apes back. There are no female monitors as the baboons have proven not to listen to women, he said.

Baboons do not eat passports or money and visitors need to stand back if targeted, said Duffell.

They are also not known to attack people willingly but will fight — using canine teeth that are longer than a lion’s — for raided food, to protect their young or if trapped.

“The city council spends a fortune on putting signs up — 90% of this happens right underneath these signs,” said Duffell, as Fred wandered up the rows of cars, trailed by his favourite son Michael Jackson.

“You don’t get out of your car at a lion park, do you?”
Cape Town authorities acknowledge there will be World Cup incidents but are confident of their controls and further public awareness, saying baboon hotline calls had dropped by 80%.

“I don’t think there is going to be any significant disruption to tourists that are visiting Cape Town,” said the city’s Stephen Granger.

“We haven’t seen baboons invading the Cape Town stadium yet.”

But O’Riain, citing a 19-month-old toddler who is seeing a psychologist after an encounter with Fred, would like systems to be beefed up. Including no getting out of cars on the road to Cape Point between 7am and 4pm.

“There’s no point waiting for the disaster. This has got to stop now and it is very serious. It’s reached boiling point,” he said. – AFP